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The Herald: Shell failed to learn Piper Alpha lessons

GRAEME SMITH July 19 2006
The oil giant Shell says it has learned lessons from mistakes which led to the deaths of two offshore workers on the Brent Bravo platform three years ago.

However, a sheriff has pointed to the company’s failure to properly implement a permit-to-work system as one of the causes of the deaths. The same problem was a major factor in the Piper Alpha disaster in 1989 in which 167 people died.

The OILC union said this clearly shows that lessons have not been learned and the sheriff has failed to grasp the opportunity to make a significant improvement in North Sea safety.

Sheriff Colin Harris said the deaths of Keith Moncrieff and Sean McCue could have been avoided if the company had properly dealt with a temporary repair on a leaking pipe.

Mr Moncrieff, 45, from Invergowrie, Dundee, and Mr McCue, from Kennoway in Fife, died in a utility leg of the platform on September 11, 2003. They had gone to inspect the repair – carried out in November 2002 – when they were overcome by a huge release of hydrocarbon gas.

In his determination, Sheriff Harris said the accident might “reasonably have been prevented” if a more suitable repair had been applied to the pipe. He noted that if the company’s permit-to-work system had been followed, a risk assessment would have taken place and the pipe drained of any gas before the patch was removed.

Defects in Shell’s system of working were also identified as contributing to the accident. These included failing to clearly set out out the limits on the work which the men could do in the utility shaft and failing to ensure staff on Brent Bravo understood those limits.

Shell was further criticised for failing to assess the consequences of starting up the platform in the month before the accident when they knew an emergency shutdown valve had failed.

Sheriff Harris said some evidence – such as the possible consequences of the ignition of vapour on the platform’s structure and its crew – was beyond the scope of the inquiry and said a more general inquiry would be more appropriate to address such issues.

Last year Shell was fined £900,000 at Stonehaven Sheriff Court after admitting three health and safety breaches over the incident, including failing to carry out a risk assessment on the platform.

Shell said yesterday it “fully accepted” the sheriff’s findings. “We deeply regret the tragic deaths of Sean McCue and Keith Moncrieff on Brent Bravo in 2003,” said the company.
“We have worked hard to understand the root causes of why it happened and have put measures in place to prevent anything like this happening again.”

Shell carried out a thorough review of its North Sea offshore installations since the tragedy, which, it said, had led to “significant improvements” in its systems, procedures and offshore training programmes.

However, Jake Molloy, general secretary of the OILC said it was glaringly obvious that lessons still were not being learned. “Central to Lord Cullen’s report on Piper Alpha was that the permit-to-work system had become a paper chase and had to be firmed up,” he said.

“What this report shows is that 16 years down the line the same mistakes are being made and with the full acknowledgement of management. “The FAI has been a wasted opportunity because the sheriff has adopted the narrowest remit possible.” and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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